My dear friend Linda came down from San Francisco for an impromptu lunch yesterday. I was too tired from having finished the Asian Tofu manuscript (hurray!) to make an elaborate meal for us. I needed something quick and easy.
Linda loves big flavor and chile heat. My solution was in a lovely bunch of lemon basil (bai maeng-lak) that I’d purchased on Saturday from the Hmong vendor at our farmer’s market. If you’re not familiar with lemon basil, get a hold of some.
This is the fresh herb season and I typically overdose on lemon basil. Their delicate, light green leaves are slightly peppery with elements of lemongrass, basil, and mint. Lemon basil is not widely used in Vietnamese cooking as we have herbs such as kinh gioi and tia to. (See the Herb Primer for details.) However, lemon basil is used in other Southeast Asian cuisines. For example, the Thais employ it in soup with shrimp. (I recently it on a crostini topped with the sardine in spicy tomato sauce.)
With this latest bunch of lemon basil, I wanted to use lots of it to show off the herb’s wonderful flavor. This grilled chicken recipe hit the spot. It is similar to the Thai grilled chicken flavored with cilantro. If you don’t have lemon basil, try another herb, such as Thai basil, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), or kinh gioi (Vietnamese balm). Even regular Italian basil would work. The trick here is that the seasonings underneath the skin still remains bright and tasty. Look at the little green bits in the top photo.
Additionally, I deboned the chicken thighs to allow the marinade to penetrate the flesh. That little bit of butchering makes grilling a snap. If you don’t debone the chicken, marinate for about 4 hours or overnight. Serve with steamed sticky rice and a salad.
6 large bone-in chicken thighs (about 2 pounds total)
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup lightly packed coarsely chopped lemon basil leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon canola oil
Thai Sweet Chile Sauce, homemade or purchased
1. Debone the chicken thighs. Use the tip of the knife blade to detach the flesh from the bone. Trim and discard any cartilage. Save the bones for stock, if you like. Transfer the chicken to a bowl and set aside.
2. In a mini food processor, grind the garlic, sugar, salt, and white pepper to a coarse texture. Add the basil leaves, fish sauce, and canola oil. Process to a fine texture, pausing the machine to scrape down the sides, as needed. Taste and it should have a strong flavor. Adjust things to satisfy your palate.
3. Transfer the marinade to the bowl of chicken. Use your hands to coat the chicken well. Make sure to peel back the skin to get seasonings between the skin and flesh. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.
4. About 30 minutes before grilling, let the chicken sit at room temperature to remove some of the chill. Preheat a gas grill to medium or prepare a medium-hot fire. (You can also use a stove top grill on medium-high heat.)
Grill the chicken for about 12 minutes, turning frequently, until cooked through. Transfer to a plate and let sit for about 5 minutes. Slice the chicken into strips about 1/2-inch wide. Arrange on a plate and serve with the sweet chile sauce.